A policeman in Lake Worth, Florida, alerted Slapnicka – the man who discovered Bob Feller – about the fireballing southpaw. He was signed to a contract at the age of 19 – with a $60,000 bonus. While the Indians won 111 games and the American League pennant in 1954, Score was mowing down batters at Triple-A Indianapolis on the way to being named the minor league player of the year, with a record of 22-5 and 350 strikeouts.
And big things were expected of him even when he went to his first Indians spring training in 1955. He was tabbed by the Sporting News – the “Bible of Baseball” – as a Rookie of the Year candidate. And he delivered on that prediction, going 16-10 and leading the league with 245 strikeouts – the most by a rookie in 44 years, and a rookie record that stood until Dwight Gooden shattered it in 1984. Indians manager Al Lopez named Score to that year’s American League All-Star team.
December 14, 1955, was shaping up to be a bad day for Score. In the days where ballplayers still worked in the off-season, he was headed to his job at a sporting goods store in Lake Worth, Florida (He was born in Queens, but after his parents separated, his mother took her children to Florida). His car broke down on the way.
But his day brightened considerably when he got the call that he had won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, getting 18 of the 24 votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“This started off like one of those days when everything goes wrong,” he said. “But everything is all right now. This is the greatest thrill of my life.”
Score was even better in 1956, leading the league with 263 strikeouts while going 20-9, one of three Tribe pitchers to win 20 games that year. But the other two, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, were getting long in the tooth.
Score had a brilliant career ahead of him. Prior to the 1957 season, the Red Sox offered $1 million for him. Ted Williams said he had the best fastball he’d ever seen. Mickey Mantle – who won the Triple Crown in 1956 – called Score the toughest pitcher he’d ever faced.
“If nothing happens to this kid,” said Tris Speaker, who had played for and managed the Indians in the 1910s and 1920s, “he’s going to be one of the best who ever pitched.”
But through no fault of his own, Score never lived up to his potential. On May 7, 1957, while pitching against the Yankees, Gil McDougald, the second batter Score faced, hit a screaming liner back toward the pitcher’s mound, striking Score in the eye. “I’m sure Herb never saw it,” said Indians catcher Jim Hegan.
Score’s nose was broken, his right eyelid was cut and he’d sustained damage to the eye. He spent three weeks in the hospital, and didn’t see the field again that season (it enabled him to push up his wedding, from October to July). The Indians finished 76-77, their first losing season since 1946. It was an omen of things to come.
Score’s injury was a disaster of epic proportions. Kerby Farrell, who was hired to manage the Indians in 1957 in part because he’d worked with Score in Indianapolis, was out after the season. General Manager Hank Greenberg was fired after the season as well. McDougald retired in 1960, and like Score, was never the same player after the incident.
Score came back in 1958 ready to go, but was sidelined for much of the year by elbow problems. It looked like he’d come back in 1959, going 9-5 in the first half of the season. He finished the season 9-11 as the Indians came in second to the White Sox – managed by former Tribe skipper Al Lopez and featuring Wynn as the ace of the pitching staff.
In 1960, Indians General Manager Frank “Trader” Lane dealt Score’s roommate Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. A day after that, Score was gone too, to the White Sox. He went 6-12 in three seasons on the South Side before finally hanging it up.
He ultimately did get that lengthy career with the Indians, although not in the manner he might have liked. He spent four years calling Indians games on television, and 30 after that as the Indians’ radio voice, during which time, Joe Tait once said, he’d seen more bad baseball than anyone in history.
But he got a taste of glory with those Indians teams in the 1990s, even if his last game was the heartbreaking Tribe loss to the Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
He died in 2008. He’d survived being hit by a truck as a child, rheumatic fever, a car accident in 1998 and a stroke in 2002 – all in addition to the line drive that effectively derailed what could have been one of the greatest careers in baseball history. And he thought he lived a charmed life.
“I would like to thank all the fans for the kindness over the years,” he said, signing off for the final time. “You’ve been very good to me.”
Photos: Cleveland Press Collection (pitching; eye patch); New York Times (on ground)